Even though the concept has been around for a while, the topic of cord blood banking has been given quite a lot of press in recent years. It isn’t too difficult to find people on both sides of the moral fence when it comes to banking cord blood. Regardless of your personal philosophy, cord blood is a fascinating product of the human body and cord blood banking isn’t likely to go away anytime soon.
Basically, cord blood is the blood that remains in the section of umbilical cord that’s still attached to the placenta after the cord is cut. This blood is known as placental blood or umbilical cord blood, but is usually shortened to just ‘cord blood’. The blood that is left in the umbilical cord is no longer needed by the baby, but it still contains the red and white blood cells, platelets and plasma of regular blood.
Something else it contains that isn’t found in everyday blood are hematopoietic stem cells like those found in bone marrow. The fact that cord blood shares this similarity with bone marrow is why it is used as an alternative to bone marrow during transplantation. In fact, cord blood is being used in more and more procedures, which is why more and more people are deciding to bank it once the baby is born.
The cord blood banking process requires skill and precision, but it isn’t overly complex for the technicians who pull it off on a regular basis. An opportunity for cord blood banking occurs virtually every time a baby is born. Once the baby is born, the umbilical cord is cut and then it is cleaned. Then, a needle is inserted into the umbilical vein in a handful of different locations. Blood is drawn from the vein and collected in a sterile collection bag. Then, the bag is packed in thermal wrappers that are designed to maintain room temperature and the cord blood is sent off to the laboratory.
The ‘why’ of the cord blood banking process becomes clearer and clearer with each passing year. Essentially, cord blood stem cells help in the treatment of many different conditions and diseases. Unlike embryonic stem cells, there is no real moral issue with collecting cord blood, because the baby is already born and the blood is just going to be disposed of. Cord blood is easy to collect and it poses no risk to either the mother or the child. When cord blood is collected, the stem cells are frozen and they can be accessed quickly if and when they are needed. Cord blood stem cells actually have several advantages over bone marrow for transplantation. Cord blood stem cells are capable of producing all of the cell types in the body. Cord blood can be banked for future use with family members or donated to a public bank for treatments with strangers. Research shows cord blood stem cells may eventually help in the treatment of stroke, heart disease, diabetes and cerebral palsy. In a bone marrow transplant, exact human leukocyte antigens (HLA) match is required between donor and recipient, but an exact match isn’t necessary with cord blood stem cells.
Cord blood that is banked and stored for future use, may end up helping with any number of different bone marrow diseases. The list includes cancers such as leukemia, sickle cell anemia, Krabbe’s disease and acquired bone marrow failure from radiation or chemotherapy treatment. The list of treatments for banked cord blood is sure to grow, as will the reasons to take this simple step when your baby is born.
The cord blood phenomenon hasn’t been known for an overly long time, but it isn’t brand new, either. The first report on human umbilical cord blood stem cells came out back in 1974. In 1980, researchers first noticed similarities between cord blood and bone marrow. In 1982, it was confirmed that hematopoietic stem cells suitable for transplant were present in cord blood.
The first successful cord blood transplant was carried out in France in 1988, and the first public cord blood bank was established in New York in 1992. In 1995, the first family cord blood bank opened in the US, and in 1997, Cells for Life opened in Ontario as one of Canada’s first. In 1998 the first successful cord blood transplant to cure sickle cell anemia was performed. By 2005, thousands of successful cord blood stem cell transplants had been performed around the world, and by 2007, over 70 different ailments and diseases were being treated with cord blood.
Like with any newer technologies or processes, certain myths and truths exist when it comes to cord blood banking. Some people believe that smaller cord blood samples aren’t worth saving, but that simply isn’t true. When a transplant is required, doctors actually calculate the exact number of stem cells required to treat the patient, based on the patient’s weight. Smaller samples are suitable for smaller patients, and certain forms of leukemia tend to affect patients six and under more often. If you plan on donating your child’s cord blood to a public bank in the hope of getting it back later, you may be disappointed. Most of the samples sent to public banks don’t meet public banking requirements and are used for research. If you send the blood to a public bank, the likelihood of it being there if you need it later on is low.
In Canada, most people don’t have access to public cord blood banking. There are only three public cord blood banks in the entire country, and government funding is needed to see that number grow. Currently, there is one in Alberta, one in Quebec and one in the Greater Toronto Area. Canada is in the top 10 worldwide when it comes to using cord blood samples, but has one of the smallest inventories. Cells for Life will continue to support the Victoria Angel Registry of Hope public bank in Toronto, and offer world-class storage in all of its locations for families who wish to bank this precious resource.